By Joyce Gannon
Women: Forget finding the ultimate work-life balance.
Dede Bartlett, a retired executive at ExxonMobil and Philip Morris who raised two children while she held senior positions in corporate affairs and philanthropy for those Fortune 500 firms, said the concept of achieving harmony while juggling professional and home life is a myth that only exists in Hallmark cards.
“Let’s eliminate the word ‘balance,'” Ms. Bartlett said during a symposium about women and leadership Monday evening at Carlow University. “It sets everyone up for frustration and disappointment.”
In fact, the stress that many women encounter trying to divide work and family is among the reasons there are still relatively few female chief executives and women in other top corporate jobs, she said.
When she started her career in the 1960s, Ms. Bartlett, 72, said she and many of her peers thought issues like providing affordable child care for all women and flexible work arrangements would be resolved by the time their daughters grew up.
“Unfortunately the landscape hasn’t changed that much,” she said.
A study released last month by Catalyst Inc., a New York nonprofit that tracks women in business, showed women held 22, or 4.4 percent, of chief executive jobs at Standard & Poor’s 500 companies. In 2013, women held 14.6 percent of executive positions at Fortune 500 firms, a separate Catalyst study said.
Ms. Bartlett, who now works on initiatives including programs to end domestic partner violence and to promote science and technical fields to young women, is spending this week at Carlow as a Woodrow Wilson visiting fellow. Besides delivering 16 lectures to students on issues including leadership, the gender pay gap and workplace culture, Ms. Bartlett was scheduled to lead three evening discussions for the Carlow MBA program.
For Monday’s symposium, she was joined by Atiya Abdelmalik, director of community programs and employee volunteerism at Highmark Inc.; Bibiana Boerio, former executive vice president at Ford Motor Credit Co. and former managing director, Jaguar Cars; Susan Kirsch, chair of the tax practice and nonprofit industry group at accounting firm Schneider Downs; Titina Ott-Adams, vice president, worldwide alliances and channels at Oracle Corp.; and Christy Uffelman, partner in Align Leadership.
While she’s distressed by the scarcity of women in executive roles, Ms. Bartlett isn’t entirely pessimistic about the future.
With two women currently in the race for U.S. president, it’s an historic time to be addressing female leadership, she said.
When she graduated from college, she said, help wanted ads separated jobs for men and women, and the best-paying position for a female was bra model.
She didn’t apply for that one.
With a bachelor’s degree in French literature from Vassar College and a master’s in American history from New York University, she said her father, an electrical engineer, “thought my education amounted to career suicide.”
But she parlayed her communications skills into jobs in marketing and public relations. In 1975, she landed a job at then-Mobil Oil’s Manhattan headquarters.
She held nine different jobs at Mobil, rising to head of global philanthropy before joining Philip Morris in 1990 where she became a vice president of corporate affairs and developed programs to prevent domestic violence for its 150,000 employees worldwide.
After retiring in 2002, she continued her work on domestic and partner violence by organizing conferences and serving on the board of Legal Momentum — a nonprofit founded as the legal arm of the National Organization for Women — which advocates for women on issues including domestic violence, sexual assault and equal pay.
She and her husband co-chair a family foundation that funds internships for female students at NYU’s Polytechnic School of Engineering in Brooklyn, her father’s alma mater, and at Vassar.